Jumpin' at the Woodside

(Mark Peterson - Redux)
By Breena Clarke
Sunday, February 8, 2009

"Is the meatloaf repeating on you, Ma?" Dennis asked Iris. He was going to tease his wife, Janeera, about her cooking, but then he looked at his mother again. She seemed seriously, desperately bilious. She was bent over, and he feared she meant to throw up on her shoes.

Iris ran to the bedroom instead of the bathroom, though, and Janeera followed her. Iris sat on the side of the bed away from the door. The boat neckline of her dress exposed her neck, back and shoulders. Janeera smiled. Most older church women are too vain to show off their bare shoulders, but Iris's were still unmarked by skin tags, moles or flab. Her skin was dark brown, like coffee if you like yours black. Her shoulders were shaking, and she was crying.

Dennis and Janeera had recently put up a framed poster of a painting by Diego Rivera to complete their living room decor. When Iris saw it that evening, she seemed startled. It was as if she saw something more sinister in the picture than just the naked back and buttocks of a beautiful young woman. Too polite to suck her teeth, Iris grunted softly. She folded her arms and rolled her eyes at the picture before turning away.

Dennis and Janeera were surprised. Even so many degrees removed from an original oil on canvas, the poster was compelling and dominated the wall. Dennis thought it was his mother's lack of sophistication and her prudishness that caused her to disapprove of it. Janeera disliked the posture of submission, but it wasn't cheesy art.

Then, when the CD player shuffled in "Jumpin' at the Woodside," Iris began to look ill. At the first, ominous bars of Lester Young's version of the tune, she bolted out of the room. What could be wrong with her?

"Ma! Ma!" Dennis cried out.

When Janeera entered the bedroom, she sat on the side of the bed and patted the top of Iris's hand. Immediately, Iris started to tell her a story.

A shy, retiring woman who had worked on the night cleaning crew at the Bureau of Engraving and Printing, Iris had also been a semi-legendary, award-winning jitterbug dancer in and around Rutherfordton, N.C., her home town. In her last year of high school, Iris gathered her loose-limbed body, her unerring sense of rhythm and her dedicated practice of dance steps and entered the Jump and Jive Time Review radio program's jitterbug contest. She won and earned the title Queen of the Jitterbug.

"No matter how hard she toiled, Honey always had plenty of juice left for dancing," Iris said wistfully. She and her sister, Hannah, called Honey, spent hours listening to the radio and putting together routines. "Honey was easygoing and energetic where most of the women of Ruffton were not. Ruffton was what we called it. Everybody did -- black and white. Honey liked to whirl around and stretch her muscles even when she was mopping and dusting and cooking." At home, in the framed photograph on Iris's dresser, Honey was tall and lean. She was pretty. She was caught in a moment of youthful loveliness that couldn't be spoiled by her dowdy chambermaid's uniform.

"For hours on Saturdays, me and Honey jumped and hollered and worked out dance steps. Honey would push the radio louder and wipe and buff the floor to put on a glossy surface. We danced all over that floor in our slips and white socks. When we were done, we were wringing wet and smelly. Then Honey heated up the water and filled the tub for our baths while I pushed the furniture back.

"It paid off when the Jump and Jive Time Review announced a contest. How it went was that each girl who entered danced a set with Shorty Green, the show's MC. The girl would show off her own stuff and keep stepping with Shorty and follow his moves," she explained.

Anticipation, recognition and follow-through -- Shorty and Iris had it all together as a couple. They held each other in a magnetic whirl of arms, legs, butts and whiplash necks. Iris had an instinct for anticipating his moves. The first time she bounded over Shorty's head, she simply knew that he would hold onto her.

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